The guy claims to be a student travelling through Africa with his mate. He is cradling a state of the art camera with a massive telephoto lens in his lap, under a t-shirt. For someone who claims to have been travelling for three months in Southern Africa he comes across as largely ignorant. He asks what else there is to see in Namibia's desert apart from Camels.

Another man with the build of a WWE wrestler, a grapefruit smuggler, is stalking up and down the beach in front of the restaurant, where we are sitting. He has no neck, and alternates between jogging purposefully and talking hurriedly into his walkie-talkie. He scans the restaurant's patrons with a beady eye. The stink of A-list celebrity is thick in the air. I laugh and mention that the paparazzi are probably hanging upside down under the jetty, waiting to get their shot. The American laughs, still pretending to be a tourist. The whole scene is deeply absurd. After many days and nights under Namibia's empty sky paparazzi and Hollywood celebs, cops 'n robbers. It makes no sense whatsoever. Bemused I stoke the coals.

'What a crap job it must be to be a paparazzi.' I opine. 'Like a parasite, feeding on someone else's fame and celebrity. Hounding them for their image...'

The statement hangs between us like a smelly fart. The American goes quiet and fidgets with the camera in his lap.

'Well it must be a pretty easy way to make money.' He says, trying to not sound defensive.

Just then the waiter from the restaurant walks to the edge of the boardwalk, stands on tippy-toes and peers into the Brangelina compound.

'They're playing in the garden.' He tells the American. 'Brad and Maddox.'

The American looks across trying to feign disinterest. He asks my fiancée to rub sun cream on his back. What a knob.

The Road

By the time the sun rises, Cape Town is a blur of sun-stained smog in the rearview. The road lies before like a smashed piggy bank. You want to burn like a comet on the start of any long journey - put all those familiar miles between yourself and home behind you, as fast possible. Break into the virgin territory, the fresh experiences. Malmesbury, Moorreesburg, Piketburg, not even slowing down, barely looking sideways. Piekeneerskloof pass over into Citrusdal and the vale of the Olifants River. Take in the splendour, don't slow down. At 130Ks the Hilux purrs like a big red cat. The old 'Copper Way' stretches forwards to the North, to Namaqualand.

Shift gears through Vredendal and Vanrhynsdorp. You start to slow down, to take in the jumble of granite boulders that begin to challenge the landscape. In amidst the massive golden brown rocks, you notice your first Kokerboom. Through the quaint, rural hamlet of Nuwerus, passed its bare rugby field. A breeding ground of future springbok hopefuls. An old rusty scrum machine stands testament. On through Garies and Kamieskroon and into Springbok.

Originally the Nama tribe discovered Namaqualand's copper deposits. They worked the metal, making tools, weapons and ornaments that they used to trade with other tribes and the newly arrived Europeans. In 1685 Simon van der Stel led an expedition into Namaqualand in search of the copper, and found the fabled metal at a place aptly named 'Koperberg'.

Springbok, The town amidst massive granite boulders, on the hillock known as 'die klein Koperberg' is a type of frontier town. The streets are filled with Land Rovers, Toyotas, Jeeps and Mitsubishis. Rugged, slightly rotund 4x4 enthusiasts pack the local Wimpy. Their mud spattered vehicles fresh from the Fish River Canyon, cool themselves to the sounds of turning fan belts. Now trekking South after the Easter holidays. It feels good to be moving against the flow, in the conspicuously un-muddy red Hilux.

At Steinkopf we swing left and careen down the Anenous Pass towards Port Nolloth. Stop to ogle at two huge kokerbooms growing on an abandoned railway station. The tracks have long since been removed. As you approach Port Nolloth the granite outcroppings subside to sparse savannah veld, which gives way to the cold kiss of the Benguela current, which resists evaporation and creates a desertified landscape of broken dune scrub. Long before diamonds were discovered, Port Nolloth was surveyed as the only suitable harbour for Namaqualand's burgeoning copper industry. Alas it's potential was scuppered because the pass in the barrier reef is too narrow to allow large ships through. The town suffered from neglect and soon the Copper industry abandoned her altogether. A commercial fishing industry was established and then Captain Jack Carstens, son of a Port Nolloth storekeeper, discovered the first diamonds about 10km from Port Nolloth. People made fortunes just picking up a bunch of stones.

Today Port Nolloth retains it's original air of neglect. It's like Elands Bay's big, ugly sister. Fat, unkempt, shrouded in mist and strange sea smells, diamond boats equipped with huge vacuum-like hoses bob restlessly behind the harbour wall. Outside the barrier reef flashes white as huge swells roll and implode and drain into the inner reef. In the anaemic sunset light, the town feels much like a picked-pocket. At the general store I buy a box of smokes, and try on some cheesy polarized sunglasses. Standing next to me is a thin man in rugby shorts, veldskoens, long socks and a khaki shirt. He smiles and puts the Loslyf magazine on the counter. Outside the Port Nolloth drunks solicit your change half-heartedly. They already have a bottle open.

Early the next morning we are hurtling through the desert mist, along the road less travelled towards Alexander Bay and Oranjemund. The landscape is stark and bare. Dozed, stripped and searched for those elusive hard clear stones. With a bit of negotiation and a R40 payment, it is now possible to cross the border into Namibia from Alexander Bay to Oranjemund. Then take the Alexkor road to the Namibian zinc mining town of Rosh Pinah. The road follows the Orange River for the most part, and it is rough.

'How's the road?' I asked the surprisingly friendly Namibian customs official. 'Eish it's kak!' he said.

'But is their traffic, at least?' I pleaded. 'I don't want to get stuck out there.'

'Not so much.' He shrugged as he waved me through.

The autumn rains have been abundant by Namibia's usually parched standards. Unaccustomed to precipitation, many parts of the road have been washed away. The sand in parts is left 'spongy' as it percolates the water into the ground and then expands under the sun. In other places, like along the banks of the Orange River, we encountered 100 - 200 meter long stretches of orange, muddy sediment. Low range, diff lock. Your heart quickens as you approach. Don't get stuck. I don't want to be found sitting on top of the bright red Drive Out endorsed 4x4, stuck in mud up to the door. It may take days before you can get rescued. But the Hilux, bless her tidy Japanese engineering, has no problem with mud up to the door. Just remember to close your window.

After the 4th 100 meter mud lunge I am completely relaxed. Easing back in the seat and letting momentum and the fire-engine do all the hard work. We skirt through the prohibited diamond area, Die Sperrgebiet , taking in the privileged landscape sights. My interest in the area fuelled by wild rumours of diamonds lying thick on the ground. Don't get out of your car and walk around. You might be mistaken for an illicit diamond poacher and get shot. Diamonds leave a trail like a large, sparkly Nike swoosh across Southern Africa. From their birthplace near Kimberley in the central plateau, the Orange River's greasy, lugubrious flow carries the diamonds over a thousand kilometres and ejects them into the cold Benguela current at Oranjemund. The Benguela pushes them up the Namibian coast towards Luderitz, like a Nike swoosh, branded across Southern Africa.

By the time we reach Rosh Pinah, the fire-engine is sporting a fresh mudpack. Not much to see in Rosh Pinah except roadworks and the Zinc mine. We pioneer onwards, up the gravel C13. The road skirts the edge of the Namib desert towards the Kuiseb River. The Namib's formidable red sand dune landscape on the left and a range of vast, impenetrable granite mountains on the right.

As the sun dipped towards the horizon and turned on the land's orange glow, we chased bat-eared foxes along the road. Eventually turning randomly onto a guest farm in search of a campsite for the night. Serendipity. The Namtib Guest Farm offered exactly what we were looking for. A large chunk of unspoilt nothing. Nestled amongst the granite fortress, listening to the eerie sound of trickling water in the desert. We watched the last of the light perish. Soon enough the stars lay thick in the sky, like diamonds in a prospector's dreams.

In the vast, empty wilderness the small things make more sense. A good meal, a warm fire, heavy kameeldoring coals glowing red, a quart of cold Tafel lager. Soon enough you drift. Wake up, scratch, stretch and sniff the crisp grey dawn. Sunrise plays a different orange tune on the rocks.

The road is an integral part of the Namibia experience. The landscape forms part of it. Forget road rage, traffic and those other urban trappings. Driving out here is like an active meditation. The landscape massages your eyes and soothes your overpopulated brain with empty vistas and natural spaces. After a few days in the saddle; driving passed, through and around gargantuan geographic formations. You just assume the position and let it come. The road connects you. The car hums as it guzzles and propels you forward through seemingly endless earthy spaces. This is Namibia.

Tourons: half a tourist, half a moron

Sossusvlei is like the beating heart of the Namib. Both spiritually and economically. The camp site has mushroomed and now accommodates many passing tourists. The large overland buses roll through, bars on wheels, with their cargo of 'adventurous', amorous European youths, bent on good times. Middle aged French women crowd around odd bugs in the lights of the women's toilets. Dutch medical students play bat and ball around the pool. Most set their alarms for before sunrise and make the pilgrimage to the vlei at dawn, in time to catch the light. In the middle of the night a group of Belgians decide on a callous, drunken midnight swim. Splashing, shouting and belting out Belgian pop songs in between squawks and attempted foreplay.

In my tent I ache for stun grenades and pepper spray.

I hear another tent unzip, as you do in a crowded campsite. The ladder creaks as the old ballie climbs down from the tent atop his Toyota Landcruiser.

'Haai!' He barks with all the authority of a Sergeant Major.

The Belgians go immediately silent.

'This is not a pub!' he growls in a thick Afrikaans accent. 'This is a special place and you need to respect it, and the people who are trying to sleep.'

'Here here!' someone shouts from across the way.

Tjoep stil . That'll do it. The ballie turns and climbs back up to his bed.

Solitaire

Early morning on the red dunes. Trip the light fantastic. Like visiting Mars for a morning. Avoid the throng of tourists at the vlei and find your own dune. Roll towards the mythical Solitaire. Stop to fill the tank. Talk to the guy behind the counter and note the leopard claw scars on his arms and face. Order a slice of apple strudel, his mother's own recipe. Buy a new pair of kudu leather veldskoens for 150 bucks and then roll out.

We crossed the mighty Kuiseb River and hook a left towards Walvis Bay to meet the boat. Our trusty vessel that will complete our voyage home for us, 4x4 and all. The Kuiseb River barely flows above ground, but because of the freakishly heavy rainfall, was trickling in a slow muddy brown towards Walvis Bay. Not being accustomed to heavy rainfall, and a river that actually flows, Walvis Bay suffers from flash flooding. When the Kuiseb actually flows, it tends to wash the sand dunes of Walvis bay out to sea. The sea comes in and the town gets flooded. This happened in the earl 1900s. Apparently it got so bad, sharks were spotted cruising the flooded streets of Walvis, looking for an easy meal.

Arriving, we are met by a similar scene. The streets are flooded from the heavy rains. Although there are no sharks, Land Rovers looking like urban gemsbokke, fishing rods strapped to the front like horns, cruise the flooded streets, displacing buckets of water into shops and bottle stores.

The slow boat

After many days in the desert, the Royal Mail Ship St Helena beckons like a floating 3 star hotel. Friendly staff with isolated-island-mangled British accents help as aboard. Proficient shipping agents sort out for the vehicle to be loaded. I park the red-devil Hilux in a container. Pull up the handbrake and leave her in first. She is expertly lashed to the inside. As if to prove a point they load a container full of eggs in front of us, and the crane hoists them onto the ship. The Hilux is next. After that display I am not concerned for her well being. Looking forward to 3 days of extreme chilling, as the RMS St Helena unpicks by sea every kilometre we sewed up over land from Cape Town to Walvis Bay.

Life on a boat is remarkably relaxed. Instead of reliving your journey in reverse as you drive home, the boat allows you to relax on deck and enjoy a new adventure. Sit and watch the mighty sea heave and roll. Once you get used to it, the movement of the boat is constant and soothing, like a lullaby. Days are marked by scrumptious meals and long afternoon siestas. There are raucous fancy dress parties, sing alongs and deck sports like cricket and swimming, a well stocked library and bar. But the most interesting thing about the trip is learning about the island of St Helena. Famous because it is where Napoleon was sent to live out the rest of his days. With no airport, the RMS St Helena is the island's only connection to the rest of the world. It's importance to the island community cannot be understated. You wish the boat was heading the other way.

The boat also gives you time to reflect on the recent experiences in the desert. The friendly faces and far out places. The sea is as stark and empty as the most isolated Namib spot, and twice as dangerous. As you lie in bed, being rocked to sleep by tons of floating steel. Warm and snug in the belly, isolated on the cold, deep blue sea.

After Words

'I'm not going to say there is no racism or tribalism in Namibia.' Says Jaco thoughtfully. 'That wouldn't be true. Those things are human. They are in all of us.' He sluks deeply on the cold, gold Hansa draft. 'It's just that those things are suspended in Namibia.

'This place is God Verlaate .' He says. Letting the words roll like boulders. 'Godforsaken. People put all that stuff on hold for survival. It's like they say: "Ja ja sure, let's just find some water and some shelter first - and we can sort through that kak later."'

I am sitting at a table at Die Langstrand Restaurant, on the beach halfway between Walvis Bay and Swakopmund. Brad Pitt and Angelina Jolie have just paid for my dinner, indirectly. I recline in the heavy wooden chair, wipe my mouth on my sleeve and quaff the beer. Life is good.

Jaco owns the restaurant, and is the chef. Meters from the beach, a long jetty sticks into the sea, a gazebo perched on the end, sheltering a tidal pool to the right. Incidentally, his business just happens to be right next door to the luxury resort that Brad Pitt and Angelina Jolie have rented for their nascent Namibian excursion. He laughs when he tells me how good for business they have been. His coffee machine services the hordes foreign paparazzi well. They arrive daily, in growing numbers, pretending to be tourists, students, pensioners, cleaning and polishing long telephoto lenses at his bar. On request from Brangelina's management he has frosted the glass on the window overlooking their compound, apparently the paparazzi had taken to sitting at his bar with binoculars. He laughs.

I met Jaco in one of those general stores in Walvis Bay. The kind that sell everything from potjies to CD players, from clothes to fresh fruit. I was stocking up on imported German gummy bears when Jaco approached. He had seen the bright red fire engine parked outside, Drive Out emblazoned purposefully on the doors. He loves the magazine. Would we be his guests for dinner. And so, in a round about kind of way, Brad Pitt and Angelina Jolie bought us dinner.

It feels a bit strange sitting at a table, eating and drinking in such an urbane setting. The vague smell of kameeldoring firewood still permeates my clothes. Traces of the Namib's red dust linger in hard to wash places, like ears. After many nights lying under the stars in Namibia's vast, empty geography - this is positively bourgeois. It is hard to comprehend the fever pitch of emotion and hype surrounding these so called 'celebrities'. So incongruent with the soulful emptiness of Namibia. Two worlds, not so much colliding, but rubbing up next to one another. Enough to cause some slow friction. Abrasion. Much like the landscape, Namibia does not react in knee-jerks. It weathers. Erodes. The sun and the wind, the Benguela's mist and on this trip, some occasional rain. The fast, flash, hollow Hollywood hype is no match for Namibia. We got time, says the desert sand. Check you suckers in a thousand years.



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